Islamabad, March 24 (PTI): Rana Bhagwan Das, the only Hindu judge in Pakistan’s supreme court, today took over as the acting chief justice and will now head the Supreme Judicial Council which is hearing charges against suspended Chief Justice Iftikar Chaudhry.
The 64-year-old judge, who has a post-graduate degree in Islamic studies and an impeccable reputation, was sworn in by the outgoing acting chief justice Javed Iqbal at a simple ceremony in the supreme court’s Karachi registry.
This was the first time in the history of the judiciary that a Hindu has been appointed to head the apex court and the second time that a judge from the minority community has been named to the post. Justice Cornelius, a Christian, had served as the chief justice during the Sixties.
Setting aside objections raised by some Islamic groups that a non-Muslim cannot become the chief justice, Iqbal said there was no constitutional bar on a Hindu taking over as chief justice of Pakistan.
“There was no bar on him becoming a judge or there is any constraint of him becoming an acting chief justice,,” he said and cited the example of Justice Cornelius.
Soon after taking over, Justice Das said all decisions would be taken in accordance with the constitution and law.
On Chaudhry’s demand that there should be an open trial against him, Justice Das said it would be decided by the five-judge Supreme Judicial Council which examined the reference cited in the suspension of the chief justice.
He said all issues would be amicably settled.
The swearing-in ceremony, which was telecast live by some private TV channels, was attended by judges of lower and higher courts and some senior advocates of the Supreme Court Bar Association whose president Munir Mallik boycotted the proceedings.
Mallik, who will defend Justice Chaudhry at the council, said while he had the highest respect for Justice Das and welcomed his appointment as head of the council, he considered Das as acting chief justice unconstitutional. He said Chaudhry continued to be the chief justice. Mallik was in Karachi to take part in a protest by lawyers against the suspension of Chaudhry.
“The order of President Pervez Musharraf making the chief justice non-functional is unconstitutional,” Mallik said.
He added that the council order restraining the chief justice from performing his duties “is disputed as it is the case of the legal fraternity. The council is not a constitutional court and has no powers to interpret the constitution,” he said.
As Justice Das took the oath of office, lawyers in Karachi and several other cities of Pakistan, including Islamabad, boycotted courts for the 15th day today.
An SMS message doing the rounds of Pakistani mobile phones said: “For a country created in the name of Islam, the hope of justice for the 160 million Muslims of it rested in (the hands of) Bhagwan (Das).”
Justice Das was born in Naseerabad in Larkana district of Sindh where he completed his law degrees and did his masters in Islamic studies.